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NASA, DARPA to go nuclear in hopes of putting boots on Mars

Fission reactor rocket should get them going quite fast

US research agencies NASA and DARPA are teaming up to create a nuclear thermal rocket engine in hopes the tech will one day carry crewed missions to Mars.

The Demonstration Rocket for Agile Cislunar Operations (DRACO) is expected to prove nuclear thermal propulsion by 2027. DARPA has been working on an experimental spacecraft design for the project since 2021.

NASA now joins to tackle the engine's technical development while DARPA will continue leading the overall program, inclusive of integrating the systems, procurement, schedules, security, and assembly of the engine and spacecraft.

Both agencies will collaborate on assembly of the engine.

"With the help of this new technology, astronauts could journey to and from deep space faster than ever – a major capability to prepare for crewed missions to Mars," said NASA Administrator Bill Nelson.

DARPA director Stefanie Tompkins said before Mars, DRACO will be essential for transporting material to the Moon.

The shortened travel time is expected to reduce the potential for adverse incidents and amount of supplies that need to be brought along, particularly for manned missions. This leaves room for more scientific payload.

The bonus is that the high temperatures generated by the fission reactor can be transferred to a liquid propellant expanded and exhausted through a nozzle to propel the spacecraft. Such nuclear propulsion systems are known to be three times more efficient than conventional chemical ones.

Nuclear thermal rocket engine tests were last conducted by US agencies over half a century ago under NASA's Nuclear Engine for Rocket Vehicle Application (NERVA) and Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory's Project Rover, a project that predates the existence of NASA. Both were deemed a success, but never flew into space.

Details of the demonstration mission were not provided, although NASA deputy administrator Pam Melroy said at the AIAA SciTech Forum on Tuesday that the spaceraft would orbit at an altitude between 700 and 2,000 kilometers to allow sufficient radioactive decay before rentering Earth atmosphere.

NASA is expected to land humans on Mars sometime in the next decade or the one after. Progress and goals to get there are in place with NASA's Moon to Mars objectives, but the actual date of when feet will land on the red surface is ever-evolving.

Human return to the Moon is much more within reach. Artemis 2, the first scheduled crewed mission of NASA's Orion spacecraft, is slated to take four astronauts on a lunar flyby in 2024. Artemis 3 has astronauts land on the surface.

A nuclear thermal rocket engine could be just what NASA needs to make a crewed Mars mission as feasible as a Moon mission while increasing the frequency of those lunar trips.

"Recent aerospace materials and engineering advancements are enabling a new era for space nuclear technology, and this flight demonstration will be a major achievement toward establishing a space transportation capability for an Earth-Moon economy," said Jim Reuter, associate administrator for NASA's Space Technology Mission Directorate. ®

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